Solidarity Forever?

Posted on April 25, 2010 by

To explain the decline of the labor movement many Americans point to the past.  Unions were necessary in the 1930s – so goes the argument – when workers toiled in mines, mills and factories.  That’s when the CIO, led by mineworker president John L. Lewis, carried out militant strikes in the great industries of the era.

But the golden age of worker solidarity was eclipsed by 60’s / 70’s liberation struggles for racial and gender equality.  And, in an ironic historical twist, the movement for equal rights – including laws against discrimination in the workplace – coincided with relentless corporate anti-unionism.  By the 1980s, a brittle, bureaucratic labor movement seemed unable to overcome that lethal combination and its own inertia.

I offer this, at the risk of being overly simplistic, because one of our nation’s original industries has been topping the news lately.

The horrible disaster at the nonunion Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia has touched off public anger and outrage as regulators and prosecutors pick apart Massey Energy’s profit-driven mine safety mismanagement.

In Southern California, another mining story has grabbed the attention of a much smaller slice of the public.

That’s where surface miners in the Mojave Desert town of Boron have been locked out by the notorious global conglomerate, Rio Tinto.  Los Angeles union activists have rallied to the cause in a campaign orchestrated by talented organizers at the Longshore union (which represents these mine workers) and the LA Federation of Labor.

Read Mike Davis’ brilliantly constructed account in The Nation.

So miners, once a great national symbol of sacrifice, struggle and solidarity (coalminers continued to engage in wildcat – unauthorized – strikes well into the 1970s) have come back into the public mind,  if only briefly, to shine the spotlight on companies which destroy lives and livelihoods of workers and communities.

But wouldn’t it be too much to expect today’s working Americans, facing stagnant incomes and prospects, to link their own fate with these victims of corporate excess?

Or would it?

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